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‘A victim can  be anybody’

Mutual Ground domestic violence sexual assault shelter held vigil Friday night commemorate those who have died due domestic violence.

Mutual Ground, a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter, held a vigil Friday night to commemorate those who have died due to domestic violence. The t-shirts made by children at the shelter hung outside the during the service. PHOTO BY JEFF GIRALDO SPECIAL FOR THE BEACON NEWS

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Violence Against Women Act

The Violence Against Women Act is credited with helping reduce domestic violence incidents by two-thirds over the past two decades. The Senate bill would authorize an annual $659 million over five years to fund current programs that provide grants for transitional housing, legal assistance, law enforcement training and hotlines.

The Senate bill adds stalking to the list of crimes that make immigrants eligible for protection and authorizes programs dealing with sexual assault on college campuses and with efforts to reduce the backlog in rape kit analyses. It reauthorizes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

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Updated: April 4, 2013 6:39AM

Gretchen Vapnar admits she gets cranky over all the news coming out of Washington.

The executive director for Elgin’s Community Crisis Center describes this whole sequester issue as more a debacle than a debate — forcing the domestic violence shelter she leads to “try and function in the dark” when trying to create plans or budgets.

Then there’s the Violence Against Women Act. Although it finally passed the House on Thursday, this bill that first became law back in 1994 did not have an easy time of it.

While 286 members of the House voted for the VAWA — which toughens penalties for domestic violence, supports law enforcement and provides critical support to groups and services for the victims of domestic abuse — 138 nay votes were registered, including those of our very own Congressmen Randy Hultgren, R-14th District, and Peter Roskam, R-6th District.

That’s where the cranky part comes in. How did a bill that passed with no controversy in the past now become a partisan debate?

“It always surprises me when there is not an across-the-board statement made against violence,” said Vapnar, her frustrations showing despite her soft-spoken demeanor. “We need a government that stands up for people who need that extra support.”

Unfortunately, after the bill lapsed in 2011, it got caught up in the partisan battles that now divide Congress. Last year, the House refused to go along with a Senate-passed bill that allowed lesbians, gays, immigrants and Native American women to have equal access to Violence Against Women Act programs. The House introduced its own bill leaving out those groups and watering down a provision allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who attacked their Indian partners on tribal lands.

It’s no surprise that proposal got strong opposition from women’s groups, as well as the White House, Democrats and some Republicans. What is surprising? While Democrats have successfully managed to make Republicans look like women haters after the presidential election, the GOP seems to go out of its way to look as if it is excluding large segments of society.

In separate press releases, Hultgren and Roskam stressed their strong support for reauthorization of the bill itself but claimed to have problems with the specifics. Hultgren said the Senate bill “unduly targeted freedom of conscience for the pro-life community, hurt the effectiveness of programs to treat women by expanding the scope too widely, and it raised the question of the constitutionality of tribal prosecutorial authority.”

Roskam had “questions of constitutionality as well as the lack of certain conscience protections within the bill.”

But Vapnar doesn’t buy those explanations.

Nor does Michelle Meyer, executive director of Mutual Ground, the domestic violence shelter in Aurora. “You can’t exclude different populations of people,” she said. “Victims can be anybody.”

Her words echo those of Rep. Bill Foster, D-11th District, whose press release stated “I am especially proud to see bipartisan support to extend these protections to include Native Americans, immigrants and the LGBT community, because all Americans — no matter who they are, where they came from, or who they love — deserve equal protection.”

Likewise, Tammy Duckworth, D-8th District applauded the passage for helping “some of the groups that are in most need of protection against violence.”

While happy that the law passed, Joy Singh, a Naperville therapist specializing in domestic violence, insisted “even more work needs to be done to make the law more usable,” especially from an economic standpoint. Many victims are in danger of losing their jobs, for example, because of what they are going through, she said. Those are the sorts of issues that often get overlooked unless you are working with these victims day in and day out.

But programs cost dollars. And all that VAWA funding, unfortunately, is subject to the sequester cuts, which may be 5 percent across the board. And that’s what makes it so hard for people like Vapnar and Meyer, who are trying hard to keep their doors open.

“My focus has to be on those nine women and 11 children in our shelter right now,” says Meyer, who has seen clientele at the Aurora shelter increase 8 percent in one year, with no additional funding. “We can’t count on anything else.”

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